Rectifying an Old Injustice: The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

  • Christine KnauerEmail author


In 1995, 52 years after the end of the war, the Korean War Veterans Memorial was opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C. For decades, veterans had felt the war and their service had been forgotten, overshadowed by the triumph of World War II and the dramatic failure in Vietnam. The campaign for a Korean War memorial and the memorial itself reflect veterans’ attempt to distance themselves from the defeat in Vietnam and associate with the triumph in World War II. Gradually, advocates redefined the war as a victory that initiated the fall of Communism. This understanding of the conflict and its significance ensured that commemorative efforts emphasized the role of the United States as the military and economic savior of South Korea. However, they all but ignored Korea and the Korean people, reducing them to stereotypes or the passive beneficiaries of American sacrifice, while underlining the United States’ self-perceived role as savior and modernizer.


  1. Barkawi, Tarak. “Globalization, Culture, and War: On the Popular Mediation of Small Wars.” Cultural Critique 58 (Fall 2004): 115–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. ———. “‘Small Wars’, Big Consequences and Orientalism: Korea and Iraq.” Arena Journal 29/30 (2008): 59–80.Google Scholar
  3. Büschel, Hubertus. “Ein ‘vergessener Krieg’? Erinnerung an den Koreakrieg in den USA.” In Der Koreakrieg: Wahrnehmung – Wirkung – Erinnerung, edited by Christoph Kleßmann and Bernd Stöver, 192–207. Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2008.Google Scholar
  4. Bush, Georg. “Remarks at the Unveiling Ceremony for the Design of the Korean War Memorial,” June 14, 1989. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
  5. Casey, Steven. Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion 1950–1953. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
  6. Choi, Suhi. Embattled Memories: Contested Meanings in Korean War Memorials. Reno: University of Las Vegas, 2014.Google Scholar
  7. Chung, Donald K. The Three Day Promise: A Korean Soldiers Memoir. Tallahassee, FL: Fathers & Son Publishing, 1989.Google Scholar
  8. Cumings, Bruce. “The Korean War: What Is It That We Are Remembering to Forget.” In Ruptured Histories: War, Memory, and the Post-Cold War in Asia, edited by Sheila Miyoshi Jager and Rana Mitter, 266–290. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  9. ———. The Korean War: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2010.Google Scholar
  10. ———. “American Orientalism at War in Korea and the United States: A Hegemony of Racism, Repression, and Amnesia.” In Orientalism and War, edited by Tarak Barkawi and Ketih Stanski, 39–64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Google Scholar
  11. Dower, John. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.Google Scholar
  12. Edwards, Paul M. To Acknowledge a War: The Korean War in American Memory. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.Google Scholar
  13. Gardella, Peter. American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Google Scholar
  14. Green, Michael Cullen. Black Yanks in the Pacific: Race in the Making of American Military Empire After World War II. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2011.Google Scholar
  15. Hagopian, Patrick. The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans Memorials, and the Politics of Healing. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  16. ———. “The Korean War Veterans Memorial and Problems of Representation.” Public Art Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 215–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hass, Kristin Ann. Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.Google Scholar
  18. ———. “Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’ and Containing the ‘Remembered War:’ Insistent Nationalism and the Transnational Memory of the Korean.” In Transnational American Memories, edited by Udo J. Hebel, 267–284. Berlin: DeGruyter, 2009.Google Scholar
  19. ———. Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.Google Scholar
  20. Hunt, Michael H., and Steve Levine. Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Google Scholar
  21. Jager, Sheila Miyoshi, and Jiyul Kim. “The Korean War After the Cold War: Commemorating the Armistice Agreement in South Korea.” In Ruptured Histories: War, Memory, and the Post-Cold War in Asia, edited by Sheila Miyoshi Jager and Rana Mitter, 233–265. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  22. Keene, Judith. “Lost to Public Commemoration: American Veterans of the ‘Forgotten’ Korean War.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 4 (2011): 1095–1113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. ———. “Aesthetics Versus Ownership: Artists and Soldiers in the Design of the National Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC.” In War Memories: Commemoration, Recollections and Writings on War, edited by Stéphanie A.H. Bélanger and Renée Dickason, 36–37. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.Google Scholar
  24. Kieran, David. Forever Vietnam: How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.Google Scholar
  25. Knauer, Christine. “A Victory After All: The Korean War in American Memory.” In We Are What We Remember: The American Past Through Commemoration, edited by Laura D’Amore and Jeffrey Merriwether, 154–175. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.Google Scholar
  26. ———. Let Us Fight as Free Men: African American Soldiers and Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.Google Scholar
  27. ———. “Their Forgotten War: Veterans and the Korean War in American Memory.” In War Memories: Commemoration, Recollections and Writings on War, edited by Stéphanie A.H. Bélanger and Renée Dickason, 11–32. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.Google Scholar
  28. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) RG 220 Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board (KWVMAB) Box 1: Minutes of Board Meetings and Related Records, 1987–1995, Enabling to Legislation to Transcript of Proceedings – KWVMAB – 3rd Meeting, January 28, 1988.Google Scholar
  29. Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.Google Scholar
  30. Papers of U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, DC, Korean War Memorial Files, 1982–1993.Google Scholar
  31. Pash, Melinda. Standing in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War. New York: New York University Press, 2012.Google Scholar
  32. Savage, Kirk. Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Google Scholar
  33. Schrecker, Ellen, ed. Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History and the Fall of Communism. New York: The New Press, 2004.Google Scholar
  34. Schwartz, Barry, and Todd Bayma. “Commemoration and the Politics of Recognition: The Korean War Veterans Memorial.” American Behavioral Scientist 42, no. 6 (1999): 946–967.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sherry, Michael S. In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
  36. Stueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
  37. Tirman, John. The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Google Scholar
  38. Wang, Su-kyoung. Korea’s Grievous War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.Google Scholar
  39. Weathersby, Kathryn. “The Korean War Revisited.” Wilson Quarterly 23, no. 3 (1999): 91–95.Google Scholar
  40. Young, Marilyn B. “Bombing Civilians from the Twentieth Century to the Twenty-First Century.” In Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History, edited by Yuki Tamaka and Marilyn B. Young, 154–174. New York: New Press, 2009.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent HistorianStuttgartGermany

Personalised recommendations